I got back from my weekend trip to find the baby and his guirrel friend had moved my garden gnome around my tree so he’s nearer the BPI hot tub faculty lounge squirrel bath. They said they liked looking at him while they surf – they’re both getting pretty good at that, by the way – and thought his presence might curb the exuberance of the resident faculty’s weekly hijinks. Sigh.

My garden gnome used to be nearer the BPI hot tub faculty lounge squirrel bath. Almost exactly where the baby and his guirrel friend put him, in fact. Then he ‘disappeared’ during the winter solstice festival, and he stayed lost for months. The Professor of Topofclassclownistics finally found him in a cupboard of the BPI kitchen, while hosting a campus tour. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to put my gnome out in the same spot just to disappear again, so I moved him to the other side of my tree.

I don’t blame the baby or his guirrel friend. The baby is too young to remember that history. He didn’t even know I used to have my garden gnome there. His guirrel friend wasn’t paying much attention to our tree back then either. Once I explained what happened and why, they were happy to help me move my gnome back to his safe spot.

If only history were always that easy to teach, learn, and apply.

Sadly, as the New York Times reported last week, American students still don’t know much about history. Except, as National Public Radio noted, the Times left out the word “still.” The Times article makes it seem as if ignorance of history is a new event. Yet a news story in 1943 reported:

The test called upon the students to identify at least two of the contributions to the political, economic, or social developments of the United States by such famous Americans as Lincoln, Jefferson, Jackson, and Theodore Roosevelt. Only 22 percent of American students had mastered enough history in their high school days to identify two contributions made by Lincoln to this country.

That 1943 story was published in … the New York Times. Obviously their current reporters are too young to remember that. And maybe their current reporters are too young to remember similar stories the Times ran in 1955, 1976, and 1985. But you’d think at least a few folks on the Times staff would remember the similar stories from 1995 and 2002.

Maybe the Times‘ staff like the irony of feigning ignorance about the history of Americans’ ignorance of history. Or maybe the irony was unintentional and the ignorance wasn’t feigned.

Students may know more about history than standardized tests reveal, education historian Dianne Ravitch told NPR:

They know that [the standardized history test] doesn’t count. It won’t help them get into college, it won’t help them get into high school. They’re wise enough to realize it doesn’t matter, and they’re so incentivized to say, “This test matters; this test doesn’t.”

Standardized tests don’t measure as much as we think. American students routinely score in the bottom 25% worldwide in math and science, yet as Ravitch noted:

We have the biggest economy in the world, the most productive workers, the most inventors, the most patents, the greatest universities. How could all of this success have come from kids who were in the bottom quartile in the international assessments? It suggests to me that there’s no connection.

In fact, teaching for multiple-choice standardized tests that focus on discreet facts may make it more difficult for students to learn history. History is, after all, about stories. The facts only make sense in the context of a ongoing narrative, the problems people faced and the ways they tried to solve those problems. So a better measure of Americans’ ignorance of history is our tendency to support ideas that have already been tried and failed.

Conservatives regularly claim laws and regulations were enacted by power-seeking bureaucrats. We didn’t enact food safety laws because people were dying from contaminated food. It was just people in Washington who wanted more tax dollars and more control over our lives. Of course, they rarely make that argument outright. Instead they complain about “burdensome regulations” that “stifle business” and “limit individual freedom.” Like your freedom to get sick from tainted food … the problem those regulations were created to solve.

By testing history based on discreet facts, rather than teaching it as the story of our attempts to solve problems, we keep ourselves ignorant about where we were and how we got to where we are. We end up like the baby and his guirrel friend, moving my garden gnome because they don’t know where he used to be and why I moved him somewhere else … or New York Times reporters writing the same story every ten years as if it were an unprecedented event.

The past few months have shown what happens when too many of us don’t learn or forget the history of minorities, women, and workers. The consequences are a lot bigger than a missing garden gnome.

Good day and good nuts.